Going Bananas: Mark McKenna Discusses Banana Tails
Mark McKenna has been writing and illustrating comics for decades, both in the major leagues and in the small-press world. For the past decade or so, he’s been doing Banana Tail, his self-publishing comics project that combines comics with learning (as well as some vivid illustration). He’s also a very active lecturer on the school circuit. We caught up with him to talk about the work he’s doing.
You started this independent publishing venture in 2002. What was the market like then? How difficult was it to get an independent line up and running?
The market as far as my attempting to break into it in the early 2000s always seemed difficult. Before independently publishing, I was very close to getting a publishing deal with Goldenbooks and Simon & Schuster back in the late ’90s, but Goldenbooks had some financial issues about the time they were talking with me and S&S decided after considering Banana Tail that it didn't fit into their kids book scheme (at the time). So in my mind, if they were considering publishing Banana Tail, I knew I was on to something and didn't want to pound the pavement anymore, hence self-publishing and attacking the comic-reading population. I was known there, having been a comic artist for the past 20 years, and had a built-in audience for my comic work, so I stretched it out a little more.
Given your history in comics, what did you know about the industry at that point that helped you get started with Banana Tail?
My biggest asset was that I knew a wealth of comic-book talent, many who were looking for another outlet from a tremendous downturn in comic-book sales from the early ’90s. I also thought that I was attempting something unique by being a comic-book artist creating a children's book. Sure, there were kids’ comics, most that missed their mark, but as far as creating a full-fledged picture book with my comic-book background? Almost none existed.
You’re very well traveled as a speaker at schools and libraries. What do you do when you go talk to kids?
Most teachers and librarians are more fascinated with my comic-book background, and when I talk at a school, I talk to the older elementary-school kids (4th and 5th grades) more about comic book creating. When I skew to a younger audience, I touch on comics, but mostly it’s about creating a monkey with a banana-colored tail and his friends and environment. I have a 25-minute Powerpoint presentation that starts off showing that I’m a family guy, touches on comic books, and then shows the early concept art for the Banana Tail world.
How do kids respond to the program?
Very well. I like to think I'm funny and engaging. I find that some schools will have the younger and older children together for one assembly, which is very difficult to navigate through with one program.
What have you learned from the kids (and from librarians and educators) while out doing these programs?
I did notice that I don't have enough “eye candy” in my presentation to keep the kindergartners at bay for very long [laughs]. I was told by one school librarian that I should create puppets for the younger audience. I can't fathom doing that at this point in my early career as a kids’ book creator. I find that 1st and 2nd graders are very interested in what I have to say and hence very attentive. It’s ultimately rewarding for me when a teacher or principal makes the effort to come over to me after a presentation to tell me I did a good job.
Where did the idea for Banana Tail come from?
My father. My father John was a great idea man. I called him the Great Procrastinator. He was a brilliant idea man who never realized his talent and certainly never got the chance to use it publicly. He passed away in 2002 and actually his passing had a lot to do with me self-publishing, if you consider the dates…. I was desperate to keep the property alive and not have it disappear into the void.
What made you want to do a kids’ book at the time?
My own children were 4 and 1 at the time of the initial idea for Banana Tail. I realized how we spoiled our kids and would buy them anything when they were young. I got great joy in taking them around Toys R Us and seeing their faces light up and we were also big believers in reading to them in a rocking chair every night before bed. Somewhere between the two worlds it dawned on me to create something that I would buy for my kids.
The art in Banana Tail is really beautiful. What do you do to achieve the effect?
Thanks. Here’s the thing with the art. Most book publishers are looking for a new, unique, hot art style to help sell a book. I came into this thinking a great classically drawn children's book would be welcomed in the market place. I had done work on Disney properties before, including Beauty and the Beast, Hercules, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so I had a sense that this would be a good direction to go.
My gut feeling after doing the first storybook was that while it was really good looking stuff, it wasn’t mind-blowing or wouldn’t light the world on fire. At the same time, I had friended a young fellow who was going to school for 3D animation down at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. Through him I met the head instructor of the 3D department, who, later on, I would discover wanted to create a production company for himself and a few other teachers to help them develop another career outside of the education market. We discussed doing the book together as a 50/50 partnership of book sales and moved forward from there. Think Pixar creating a children's book and that's kind of what the new Banana Tail book is.
How did you first get involved in writing and illustrating comics?
I was a comic collector as a teenager, always liked to doodle. In middle school I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but that was short-lived. I hadn’t thought about writing again until Banana Tail was created. The art thing moved forward as I was accepted into the School of Visual Arts in New York City and met the new talent coordinator at DC Comics, who was also a teacher at SVA. After a few meetings I thought that this is what I wanted to do.
What have been your favorite characters (aside from your own) to work on and why?
As far as comic book characters, I was always into the cosmic characters—the Silver Surfer or Adam Warlock. I was fascinated with the old 1970s Legion of Superheroes at DC, I think because of that cosmic mentality. Something about being able to shoot blasts of power from your fingertips really impressed me.
How long do you plan for the Banana Tail series to continue?
I'm still in my infancy as far as Banana Tail is concerned. I have many stories to tell and characters to introduce. I see Banana Tail as an ongoing TV show and actually created an episode guide for that day. I've been told that I'm too stupid to let the property "die," so it’s full steam ahead for me until I'm a household name—I mean he is.
What’s next for the series?
I am doing focus stories on the three main characters. The new book is focused on Banana Tail and one of his best friends, Reena, who’s a mood-color-changing girl rhino. The next book will be a focus on Tic Tac, the plaid zebra, and a bit more about his back story.
Are there any upcoming presentations or appearances for you that you would like people to know about?
I'm just about to start the comic con season, so I will be hitting about five or six shows in the next few months (see my website for dates and appearances). The school year will be ending soon, so I'll gear up for next year.
I'm still waiting on the new book Banana Tail's Colorful Adventure to ship. I'm excited about this book for two reasons. I did not publish this book under my own Banana Tale Press; it’s being published by Image Comics under the imprint Silverline Books, and the category of "picture book" has been changed to "Young Readers Graphic Novel." So I will gear toward speaking to 1st and 2nd graders.